Piazza Armerina and the Villa romana del Casale

Visitors are likely to be here for a visit to the Villa romana del Casale, which is worldwide famous and one of those things one cannot miss to see travelling through Sicily. We might say it’s one of the most important archeological sites in Italy, but, we suggest also not to miss visiting the city which hosts this wonder: Piazza Armerina.

The city

Right in the heart of Sicily, in the territory of Enna, the only one among the nine Sicilian provinces that does not face the sea, we find a surprising town: Piazza Armerina. The town lies on a hill some 700m ASL and being the sea far away, even in summer the weather might be sometimes fresh in spite of the latitude. Rebuilt in 1163 upon the Armerino hill by Norman king Guglielmo II d’Altavilla, in 1517 it was denominated by Emperor Charles V “Urbs Opulentissima”: still today it takes the visitors aback for the great number of churches, palaces and other monuments of interest of great architectural and artistic value, and naturally for the well-known “Villa romana del Casale” and its wonderful mosaics. The center is a labyrinth of little winding streets leading to the main square, known as “piazza del Duomo”, where the Cathedral dedicated to the Madonna of the Victories overhangs everything else around.

The Cathedral of Piazza Armerina with its gothic bell tower and the baroque facade

The cathedral was built during the XVII and XVIII centuries on the basement of an earlier church saving some of its elements, such as the bell tower and the windows of the left side, the both of them in the gothic style. The mix of these different Architectural styles (baroque and gothic) makes the church peculiar.

The right side of the Cathedral and a typical view in Piazza Armerina

 Inside is guarded its treasure: the silvery main altar with the icon of the Madonna of the Victories. Wandering along the streets of the center is the best way to discover other churches and palaces of Piazza Armerina such as  the Trigona palace, the Convent of Sant’Anna, the College of the Jesuits, the Aragonese Castle or simply special corners and passages of this very well-kept medieval town.

piazza armerina vista notturna
Piazza Armerina, night view.

The imperial roman Villa del Casale

A few km away from the center along the sp15 leading to Barrafranca lies the Villa Romana del Casale together with many other Sicilian sites in the world’s heritage list of UNESCO. The particular state of conservation of its mosaics and the villa itself is due to a landslide that happened in the XII century: the villa was completely buried and at the same time preserved for the future.

villa del casale - piazza armerina
The thermal complex of the villa romana del casale, in close up, ancient “boilers” once producing warm waters for the “Calidarium”.

As the site is magnificent, the question is spontaneous: who was the owner? Someone says a rich man from the roman  senatorial class, maybe Lucius Aradius Valerius Proculus, governor of Sicily since 327 to 331 A.C. and Consul in 340 A.C. The villa with the Basilica and a private thermal complex was the right place to receive and impress his clients!

villa del casale - piazza armerina (2)
Hunting scene mosaic

Over 3000 sq m of pavements covered with wonderful mosaics, depicting geometrical patterns, hunting scenes with animals from all over the known world, fruit trees, sport scenes, mythology and daily life are exposed and well illuminated, and their bright colours are stunning. Less known are the frescoes that still covers a large part of the walls, both inside and outside. One of the most famous rooms is the one containing the”Bikini Girls”, a mosaic depicting female athletes practicing different sports, even some sort of bodybuilding and volleyball, wearing bikinis: but weren’t bikinis from the second half of the XX century? Obviously no! Notice on the knee of one of the athletes are present stitches to treat a wound, evidences of the modernity of the romans. 

Villa Romana del Casale, the room of the “bikini girls” female athletes depicted while practicing sports.

Unbelievable is the beauty of the gallery of the great hunt: it is 65m long and 5m wide with mosaics entirely covering the floor, this time depicting seven different hunting scenes and animals from Africa, India and the middle east: in a few words animals from all over the roman empire, such as tigers, elephants, leopards, ostriches, antelopes and many others.

the great hunt - piazza armerina - mosaic
The Gallery of the Great Hunt, one of the seven scenes depicted in the gallery.

 In these scenes animals are never killed but captured and loaded on ancient cargo ships maybe to be transported to Rome. There are more than 50 rooms to visit in the villa and some of them are huge and everyone is worth to be seen so take your time.

villa romana del casale - sicily - piazza armerina
Gallery of the Great Hunt, ancient cargo ships were used to take the captured animals to Rome.

During summer, from Friday to Sunday the visiting time extends untill 11 pm,: visiting the site by night is in our opinion a more comfortable choice, a few visitors are usually present and the temperature is optimal. Our special thanks goes to Mr Alessandro Lanza, one of the volunteers who every day take care of the site for no wage but their personal satisfaction.

The Normans’ tournement

This is one of the most important historical  equestrian tournaments of southern Italy, and takes place in Piazza armerina every year since august 12 to august 14 when more than 600 people, wearing historical costumes, play different roles in a massive parade.

palio dei normanni - parade - sicily
The Normans’ tournement, more than 600 people play roles in the parade.

The city is divided into four quarters: Castellina, Monte, Casalotto and Canali, each competing in the tournament to win the palio, the ensign which during the following year will be guarded in the main church of the winning quarter. The Normans’tournement actually depicts historical facts that happened in Sicily during the middle ages, when the Normans, with the Pope’s approval, entered Sicily in order to defeat the muslims and impose the catholic religion in the island, gaining this way the great advantage to become the owners of the whole territory. The cathedral of Piazza Armerina is called the Church of the Madonna of the Victories in honour of the Virgin Mary who permitted the normans to win the battles against the muslims. During the first two days different parades move around the city representing historical facts, and only during the third day, August 14, the knights of every quarter ride their horses in the saracen’s carousel. It is a four-way carousel where the knights have to show different skills. At first they have to hit with a spear the saracen’s shield , then they have the same task using a bludgeon , after this they have to center a ring with the spear, and at last they have to throw a javelin through a paper ring… That sounds difficult while riding a horse, isn’t it?

The surroundings

Those who are planning to spend two or three days in Piazza Armerina will find the surroundings are quite rich of attractions and fascinating sites.

The Venus of Morgantina

In the nearby town of Aidone inside the archeological museum is guarded a statue known as the Venus of Morgantina. This treasure of the 5th century BC is the result of an illegal digging, probably at the archaeological site of Morgantina from which it takes its name. Then it was illegally sold at the Getty museum of Malibu.  After a long litigation between United States and Italy, it was returned to Italy in 2011 and exhibited in the museum of Aidone.

venere di morgantina - sicilia
The Venus of Morgantina

The archeological site of Montagna di Marzo

A few kilometers from Piazza Armerina there is another archaeological site dating back to the 7th century BC. :it’s the site of Mountain of March with a Roman theater and a necropolis nearby.

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